The holidays are well behind us now. Shorter days and Jack Frost nipping at your nose have lost their novelty. It’s the start of a more serious season, filled with snowplows, tire chains, and 10-pound sacks of litter that will never feel a kitty’s caress. In many parts of the northern hemisphere, it’s a long slog through snow, sleet, and freezing rain to get from January to jonquils.
Understandably, we look to Nature for role models. Native people aren’t unique in their ability to draw a connection between human and non-human animals—Madison Avenue is especially canny at choosing charismatic creatures to impersonate our enviable and endearing (or at least humorous) characteristics. Particularly at this time of year, when the mercury can’t seem to bootstrap its way past 32°F, you’ll find a lot of furry salespeople pitching warm and cozy wares in magazines and newspapers, on television and online. I assume the general idea behind this trend is that raw, gray days bring out the hibernator in all of us mammals.
Not to split hairs, but that’s not technically correct. Humans don’t hibernate. That’s not to say we don’t go through some behavioral changes at this time of year—we do (at least so far as jobs, school, and the other routines and rituals of modern life allow)—but those cold weather coping strategies look strangely… reptilian.
See for yourself—next time the Weather Channel predicts a cold front, with or without a “wintery mix,” ask yourself if the people peeking out from fleece hoodies, swaths of scarves, turned up coat collars, and balaclavas as they hunch toward the warmth of home look more like bears… or tortoises.
Now, there’s a bit of Class warfare at play here, because homeothermic (body temperature largely uninfluenced by the surrounding environmental) hominid mammals aren’t often flattered by comparisons to scaly, poikilothermic (body temperature influence by the surrounding environment) cold-bloods. Knowing this, and well aware that my claim will face considerable skepticism, I’ll use an example to back it up: a familiar and easily identifiable semi-aquatic turtle called the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans).
Even nature neophytes will immediately recognize this species, a common resident of lakes and ponds in urban and suburban parks, as well as in pet stores. Shell, legs, head and tail are inscribed with stripes and nested ovals of green and yellow, the “elegant script” referenced in its Latin name (although the vibrant colors do tend to fade somewhat with age and a thick coat of algae). The red “ear” on either side of the head distinguishes the slider from all other North American turtle species and allows for a quick and definitive ID as they sunbathe on stones and logs. “Quick” being the operative word here; sliders don’t hear well, but they are very sensitive to vibrations that alert them to the presence of potential predators, and they can slip back into the safety of the water with surprising speed.
In the wild, the slider’s life cycle begins with courtship and mating as early as March or as late as July, depending on the region and the weather. Subsequently, the female heads for dry land to deposit a clutch of eggs, excavating with her hind legs to create a nest in the soil. Then she turns for home with nary a backward glance, and the turtles-to-be she leaves behind are on their own from that point forward. Two or three months later, depending on the average ambient temperature, hatchlings emerge from the nest and set out to conquer the world.
Most of them don’t make it past the first year—such is Testudine life… and death. Those who live to see their 2nd birthday, however, can reasonably expect a couple decades of celebrations, getting bigger with each passing year (females reach 10-13 in (25-33 cm), while males max out at 8-10 in (20-25 cm)).
In addition to predation, winter is one of the biggest barriers to longevity that young turtles must navigate in the wild (HA! I’ll bet you thought I’d lost my original train of thought, didn’t you?). No one expects to see a slider in a snowstorm, so it’s natural to assume they use sleep as a survival strategy. Hey, it works for two of the most diverse Orders on Earth—Chiroptera (bats) and Rodentia (rodents), so why not?
But reptiles take a different road. Brumation is a period of decreased activity, but it doesn’t involve the extreme metabolic changes that occur during hibernation. ‘Round about October, as temperatures dip below 50°F, sliders begin to settle in at the bottom of their preferred body of water, or in some cases under stream banks and tree stumps, and just… hang out. They’re less social, they move a little more slowly, sleep a little later, watch more television (I’m sure there must be a turtle equivalent), and generally feel lethargic and unmotivated. On warmer days, they’ll drag themselves up from the depths to stretch their limbs, have some lunch, and catch some rays with a few friends… but as soon as old Sol goes into hiding they follow suit, retreating into their shells to become stick-in-the-muds until spring.
Social commentators have come up with any number of marketable catch phrases to describe the human desire to turn our backs on a less than hospitable world—cocooning, burrowing, vegging out, even hibernating. The admen (and women) may argue that it doesn’t have the same sizzle, but what we’re really talking about here is brumating.
Sound like anyone you know?